Mississippi Blues Vol 3 (1936-1942) “Catfish Blues”
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Robert Petway made the first recording of Catfish Blues, and there’s a good case for believing that he composed it: ‘He just made that song up and used to play it at them old country dances. He just made it up and kept it in his head,’ says Honeyboy Edwards, who learned the song from Petway in person. The first bars of ‘Catfish Blues’ locate his music squarely in the gravel-voiced, rhythm-dominated tradition usually thought of as typical of the Mississippi Delta; the song chugs implacably on, powered by a monochordal riff. Petway was no guitar virtuoso, but he ably exploited his National steel guitar’s capacity for volume, and made effective use of the trademark triplet runs which can be heard in many of his songs; during Ride ‘Em On Down he varies the device, providing instead an exciting rush of sixteenth notes. Like McClennan, Robert favoured a dramatic vocal delivery, growling out the lyrics, bearing down hard on the beat, and encouraging himself with spoken asides. Petway’s second and last session, a year later, was held immediately after a session by Tommy McClennan. It was perhaps Tommy’s presence and example that encouraged Robert to crank up the energy a notch, coming closer to the more manic level attained by Tommy’s version of their joint style. Eight titles were recorded, of which six were issued; the high point of the set came half way, when McClennan joined Petway (and Alfred Elkins, heroically plunking his one string bass) on Boogie Woogie Woman, one of the most exhilarating recordings of this or any other era, and as close as we shall ever get to Saturday night at the Three Forks juke. Robert Petway’s recording career ended with a Cotton Pickin’ Blues that draws on the realities of his life, and thereafter he fades from view almost completely. “Mississippi Matilda”, as Bluebird dubbed is a fascinating singer, especially on her masterpiece, Hard Working Woman, with its deliberately breathless falsettos suddenly descending into her natural register at the end of the verses. Powell plays lilting guitar figures behind her, and Harris supplies a somewhat distantly recorded, but attractively dissonant, chordal backup. Six sides were credited to Sonny Boy Nelson, but it’s thought that he’s only present on five of them. Willie Harris is the vocalist on the pretty, wistful Low Down, and the lead guitar certainly has the twangy timbre of Bo Carter’s National steel guitar. Bo’s influence on Powell is obvious elsewhere; compare the guitar responses in the first verse of Long Tall Woman, and the singing on Lovin’ Blues, for instance – but his seventh string, and the ‘cross-tuning’ technique, whereby Harris tuned his guitar two tones lower than Powell’s, nevertheless make for a distinctively different sound. Even when complaining about a woman who goes in for Street Walkin’, Eugene sounds wearily resigned to life’s unfairness’s, rather than pounding the guitar and roaring out the lyrics in the manner of Charley Patton or Son House. He and Harris pulled out as many stops as they could for their last title, however, ending an otherwise comparatively gentle session with a driving Pony Blues that’s not related to other, similarly titled themes. Harris supplies a more insistent rhythmic impetus than hitherto, while Powell unleashes flurrying, bell-like treble figures, both behind and in response to his own vocals.